Album Review: “Slowdive” by Slowdive

The aftermath of a strummed guitar fades in before the strumming is heard at all. The guitar is accompanied soon – a droning tremolo and a solid bass, backed by a light, easy drum beat. A glittering repeating two-note guitar figure enters, with as much reverb and echo as the rest of this introduction has had. The echoes overlap past the next appearances of the actual figure. “Slomo,” the opening track of Slowdive’s new self-titled album, the first since 1994’s Pygmalion, is well under way by the time Neil Halstead’s voice – matured and deeper than ever after 23 years – enters with a repeated melody mumbling in an increasingly confused soundscape. “Give me your heart,” it sounds like he says. “It’s a curious thing.” Rachel Goswell, Slowdive’s second vocalist, has an oblique harmony, mostly on the same note, and higher, as usual, than Halstead’s voice which is, unusually, fairly high to begin with. Soon the vocals drop out for a stranger, atmospheric sound, come back again, pan from speaker to speaker, never settling, dropping out and coming back, are joined by unidentifiable noises, snippets of feedback, steady snare fills, droning guitars getting louder and louder. After a time only Goswell’s voice remains, in that same steady, unmoving melody, but it moves up an octave shortly, all in her quintessentially breathy voice, until everything fades away and we are left with a softening song that reveals just how full everything had been. And all of it starting with the aftermath of a strummed guitar.

Whatever it is is, for just a moment, that aftermath, echoing before its source reveals itself, is the droning, reverberating, twisted sound of Slowdive. The sound has earned them a reputation among casual fans like myself as the more comprehensible, melodic, English version of the enigmatic, loud, capricious, and Irish My Bloody Valentine. Souvlaki was certainly a legendary album of the classic shoegaze label Creation Records and the scene that, for a time, celebrated itself. It flaunted wildly flanging (and wildly distorted, and wildly reverberating) guitars, unrelenting but usually simple drums parts, heavy bass, and vocals working as far more than mere delivery mechanisms for lyrics. “Machine Gun” and “Souvlaki Space Station” could easily have come from Chapterhouse or My Bloody Valentine, but Slowdive was never the one-note band those others sometimes seemed to be. Months after Creation dropped the band in 1994, following the release of the apparently dissatisfying Pygmalion, Halstead and Goswell reunited with a few others as Mojave 3, a mediocre alt-country band. Pygmalion itself was essentially a forward-thinking 1st wave post-rock or slowcore album, something like Dirty Three or Bark Psychosis but with enough abstraction to make it something truly unique. Slowdive’s debut, Just For a Day, starts with a driving kick-heavy drum that sounds straight out of a Joy Division song. None of which is to say that Slowdive ever veered from being at heart a “shoegazing” band, dependent upon its pedals and droning volume above all else. But my highlights of “Souvlaki” have always been the quieter, clearer tracks, like “Here She Comes” and “Dagger,” along with the cover of “Some Velvet Morning.” My guitar teacher used to tell me I could use all the pedals I want, but a song has to be good without them. Slowdive has consistently shown their ability to strip away the effects and come out gleaming on the other side.

The band has certainly not eschewed their penchant for variety. Where “Slomo” may sound in its description like a typical Slowdive track, the crisp two-note guitar figure mentioned above rings clearly over the delightfully muddy wall of sound. “Star Roving” has an interesting symmetry guitar’s rhythm, starting out on the downbeats, ending on the up, that gives the track an air of constant oscillation, while a sturdy distorted bass and glimmering crashes in the drum part give the track an urgency effectively balanced by the patient melody, which glides like a falling leaf, taking two steps down for every one up, to its low point, a considerably more compelling and attractive motion than the repetitive, if still enjoyable, melody of “Slomo.” And though shoegaze is known for its simple production of the great mess of sound through guitar pedals, the effect is aided in “Star Roving” by a looping of the vocals as well that makes it sound almost as if they are being sung in a round.

“Don’t Know Why”’s maximalism is primarily produced just by sheer number of parts at a time, though guitar effects don’t hurt. The melody here is a repeated downward motive that even stays for the chorus, differentiated more for its instrumentation than melody or chord progression. “Sugar for the Pill” has the same echoy guitar and bass as usual, but each here is playing remarkably distinct notes. It is among the most easily listenable openings to any track on the album, comparable to the aforementioned “Here She Comes.” Whereas most songs on the album start with indefinite instrumentation and confused background noise, “Sugar for the Pill” begins with a five-note movement by an electric guitar paralleled by a bass, each with an echo at the same speed. The fifth note settles for a few bars, leaving only the echoes, replaced by a repetition just before they die away. This is maybe the calmest moment through the whole album. After a few repetitions the bass takes a more steady eighth-note line, walking through the space of that fifth note and accompanied by equally steady percussion. When the verse comes in for an admittedly unexceptional melody the bass is king. It’s powerful through the whole album, but here the guitar quiets down, leaving a strong, powerful low end. This isn’t a great track, but there’s some solid syncopation and the bass carrying through that make it work well for the middle section of an album.

Though the album threatens to slow or falter with “Sugar for the Pill,” the next track, “Everyone Knows,” flattens that threat completely. Starting with a rattling synthesizer and held bass-note, “Everyone Knows” soon heads into the most familiar yet exciting song on the album. A jangly guitar line and strummed acoustic have a few moments to themselves before a snare-heavy drum intro leads us into the remarkable loud wall of sound that the word shoegaze usually brings to mind. Goswell sings with what sounds like an octave pedal on, giving the impression of two women singing in parallel. The melody has the same movement over and over again, but starting on different notes every time with each chord, producing a kind of vocal arpeggio. I can’t help air-drumming along to this one, though I add more rolls for fills at the end of each bar than drummer Simon Scott apparently thought necessary. The song builds and builds to an enormous energy until it suddenly fades, the way all shoegaze tracks should end.

Unfortunately, there is a slight slowdown for the antepenultimate and penultimate tracks, “No Longer Making Time” and “Go Get It.” They’re each perfectly capable, and the former even has the best vocal melody on the album, and it’s well-harmonized as well, but this is an album for which vocal melody just isn’t all that important. The shoegaze sound of “Everyone Knows” gets a little stale in the dramatic choruses, but if it stayed around for the verses there would at least be a forward movement to the song. As it stands, it more or less just repeats itself and ends with a lackluster final verse. It’s an unmemorable song and one I could imagine skipping in the future. “Go Get It” has the same problem. Though there’s a terrific early post-rock sound in the tom and cowbell-heavy drums – a return to the age of Pygmalion – everything else stays fairly static and predictable. The chorus even has shades of shouted stadium pop, like a bad U2 song.

To continue to make comparisons, “Go Get It” ends with a few strummed chords and the chirping aftereffects of a fast delay. That delay slows down and drops in pitch like a record being stopped without the needle being taken off, and it sounds exactly like the end of “Karma Police,” so much so that I continually expect “Fitter Happier” to come on after it. Instead I get a different Radiohead song. I could not write about “Falling Ashes” without noting that it is almost exactly the same song as “Daydreaming,” the second single from Radiohead’s 2016 A Moon Shaped Pool. Each begins with slightly muted arpeggiated chords in the piano and little effects panning around the soundscape. “Daydreaming” has three notes to “Falling Ashes”’s four, and the piano of “Daydreaming” moves around with the chords while that of “Falling Ashes” stays on the same chord as the bass moves around, but the similarity is impossible to ignore. Perhaps Slowdive wants to suggest that they have developed as much as Radiohead has, but they have not. Once the vocals come in, “Falling Ashes” becomes considerably better. There is a pleasant harmony of Halstead and Goswell in both verse and chorus, and the chorus is an enchanting repetition of three words – “Thinking about love.” After the second verse, in which a guitar more prominently picks at a few notes that it hinted at in parallel with the bass earlier, the chorus returns with an even more prominent guitar. For something like a bridge, hissing and buzzing join as the bass departs for the moment. The music generally becomes busier but because there is no bass moving from chord to chord it is a business of tension rather than movement, in the best way imaginable. It is a delight when the chorus returns for several repetitions, singing “thinking about love” over and over again until the banality takes on some unexpected depth. Finally, only “love” remains, repeated on its own a few times before the intro returns, the piano drops out, and only atmospheric sounds remain as the whole album fades away. “Love” may not be the subject of the album, but it feels entirely appropriate as an ending.

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